A writer’s word cannot be trusted. We do not make the list.
In a corner of the Australian bureaucracy where verification of your identity is required, there is a list of eligible people who can be trusted to tell the truth. Doctors, solicitors, tax collectors and members of parliament are among the professionals guaranteed to know the truth and to tell it. Trust me, I’m a doctor. Trust me, I’m a politician.
Writers do not make it onto this list of selected individuals. Don’t trust me, I’m a writer.
But that is exactly the wonderful, powerful stuff of writing and other art forms – you don’t have to stick to the truth. As long as you are consistent in your fabrications, you can build a world of lies. The 19th century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said that you could imbue your writing with “a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”. In other words, if you can make it believable enough, it can become its own truth.
It is poetic licence. It is prosaic manufacturing. It is fiction and faction and magic.
What is even better is that in building your fiction, you can somehow get right into the heart of reality. Art can tell the truth better than the truthful, the trustworthy, the reliable.
No matter how many times René Magritte claims that his painting is not a pipe (it is after all only a painting of a pipe), we know, better than any doctor, politician or accountant, that it is indeed a pipe. It is the essence of pipeness. It is true in all its magnificent fabrication.
In their wordy worlds Hamlet can be the prince of Denmark forever and James Bond a Secret Service agent. No one will doubt their existence. And if anyone asks for verification of their identity, I’ll put my hand up.
I am a writer and they are the truth. The truth, the whole truth and everything but the truth.
This short story appeared in Afrikaans in Skrik op die lyf (Tafelberg, 2015) and this is my humble English translation.
The house with the green roof was mine. The third house from the park, on the left. The one with the overgrown garden.
The garden was not neglected, just a bit unkempt. The lawn was still mowed every week or so, but the edges were not trimmed, so that runners had crept between the paving and the garden beds. From the hibiscus hedges on both sides of the driveway wild shoots had grown. Invisible birds sang in the thicket and a thick layer of dead leaves and flowers covered the ground.
In the backyard the roses had not been pruned for some time. New buds had appeared among last season’s rosehips. A new bed of nasturtiums had flourished but was now suffering in the dry heat. On weekends the sprinkler brought some relief and the flowers briefly lifted their heads.
There was a shed in the corner of the yard, nudging up against an enormous avocado tree. The shed was just big enough for the lawnmower, a few garden implements, and some herbicide containers and ant-poison. The door hung heavily on rusted hinges and you had to lift it a bit to open the sliding bolt. The shed probably housed a multitude of spiders, cockroaches, lizards and other harmless creatures. They were welcome to tarry in the mouldy dark. I preferred the house.
It was an ordinary house in a middleclass neighbourhood, not much different from the other houses in the vicinity. A young woman lived there, a mother of two toddlers. On weekday mornings, before she left for work, she dropped them off at the Daisy Kindergarten. In the evenings, after the children had gone to sleep, the house became too quiet and she retreated to her room with music from a small portable cd-player. Mostly classical music – Bach and Chopin and Schumann. Sometimes she played old gospel albums of Elvis Presley or Negro spirituals and then she would sporadically join in: “Nearer my God to Thee” or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.
Her music did not bother me. She did not bother me. The children were obedient and well-behaved and slept without nightmares. There were storybooks and games, teddies and dolls and cars. All was well. We were a happy household.
One Saturday morning the shed door stood slightly ajar. When the house’s backdoor opened and the two children spilled out onto the grass, a crow burst from the shed, lifted its shiny black body over the avocado tree with heavy wings and disappeared. The children ran and circled over the lawn. Jamie aimed for the shed but I gently pushed him aside. Never before had the shed door just stood open. And we don’t see crows here very often.
The children quickly forgot about the shed and the crow and played in the garden the whole morning with pebbles, toy cars and dried-out flower buds. Samantha propped her talking doll against the stem of a rose bush and crumbled the dried leaves like confetti over the doll’s head. She respectfully laid a nasturtium at the doll’s feet. When she picked up the doll and held it against her, it repeated in a tinny voice: “I love you, Mommy. I love you, Mommy.”
By the late afternoon, when the children had disappeared indoors, the woman fetched the lawnmower from the shed. She frowned at the open shed door and pushed it shut again. Later on she rolled out the hose and watered here and there. Samantha came out to lean against her. “I love you, Mommy,” she said and the woman stroked the child’s head with her free hand.
That evening I stood in the dark house for a long time and listened to the woman’s music. One of the children cried in their sleep, otherwise it was quiet. I wandered through the house and later also the garden. Just after midnight I heard it – the shed’s bolt sliding open and the hinges creaking.
I came out from under the avocado tree’s overhang, walked over flower beds and lawn without leaving tracks. The slip of a moon had long set. Dapples from the neighbour’s veranda light drifted over the fence like moths and faded against the wall of darkness. I could feel the darkness pulsating against me like a heart under my hand.
It was here. I knew it with my whole being as if I could smell, hear, see, touch and taste it. Something was in the shed. It pushed against me, a paralysing gloom.
Stay where you are, I thought as I turned away from the shed. This house is mine.
The next morning the children slept in and the woman struggled to get them ready for church. Jamie stood with his nose pressed against the dining room window and looked out on the backyard, where a willy wagtail bounced around on the lawn. The store was empty again and the door closed.
I waited for more than a week, listening to the shed’s door creaking open at midnight. Every night it occupied the shed and disappeared again in the morning, the door neatly closed. Every night the shed became heavier and darker, like a black hole attracting everything to its dark centre. It was as if the walls bulged out, as if it breathed.
In the mornings there were moth wings in front of the door or a handful of dead cockroaches. One morning the willy wagtail lay there – stiffened and cold. Even during the day it was as if a haziness lay over the shed, as if a giant hand was shading the light.
Then, one early evening, with the children already called inside, the shed door stood open again. Black on black was the crack in the door, darker than dark. A gaping mouth. I approached the pulsating black and smelt the mouldy odour of damp grass and lizard excrement and cockroaches and poison. I felt the cold breath and the deep echoing in space upon space like a bottomless pit.
Irresolutely I retreated. Behind me the blackness crept over the lawn. It licked at the backdoor, then eventually spilled over. Like smoke drifting in the dusk, like black water creeping up at high tide.
In the kitchen the woman was preparing dinner. The darkness flowed around her legs, pushed out sticky tentacles, hesitated, held on. Dropped back onto the floor and seeped into the grooves, between cracked tiles and skirting-boards, under bookcases and carpets. When the last sunlight disappeared, the dark became darker.
I waited. Waited for the children to bath and eat. Waited for the woman to put them to bed. Waited for her to do the washing-up and clean up the kitchen and drink a last cup of tea. It waited as well. Behind the curtains and under the floor. Then it became fluid again, seeping out over the tiles. I felt its damp intensity, the smothering presence, and I knew I had waited too long – it had grown into something stronger than me.
The music coming from the woman’s room gave me hope. The first notes of a violin concerto. Bach. But it was too light, too harmless. No weapon against the dark. I had hoped for cantatas or choral work.
The darkness filled the house. I pushed against it carefully, felt it giving way in surprise, but then it rose against me again and spread anew. At the door to the woman’s room it hesitated for a moment like an animal smelling the door frames. Then it turned around and pushed me back against the walls. I retreated. At the open door of the children’s room I stopped. Jamie lay nearest to the door, one leg kicked open, the blue duvet rumpled over his body. His mouth was a little open, a drop of spit on his lower lip.
On the bed near the window Samantha lay sleeping on her side. She held a teddy bear against her chest, pulled up under her chin. One arm was draped over the edge of the bed and on the floor lay her talking doll where it had dropped out of her hand as she fell asleep. I fled into the room and picked up the doll. From nearby the child smelt of soap and sleep.
I closed the door. At the foot of Jamie’s bed I waited. From the lounge the darkness was approaching. It hesitated at the door, then oozed through a crack. I could smell the mouldiness, the smell of decomposing and of death. With both hands I hugged the doll to myself. The tinny voice was thin in the dark night. “I love you, Mommy.”
The darkness hesitated. Again I hugged the doll to me. “I love you, Mommy.”
Samantha moaned in her sleep and rolled over onto her other side. A crack appeared in the smothering black night, a thin strip of light. Again I pressed the doll, again and again and again. “I love you, Mommy. I love you, Mommy. I love you, Mommy.”
Word for word it pushed back the darkness from the door. I stepped out of the room, the doll still in my hands, against my chest like a shield. The darkness retreated, it swore and cursed and hissed like a snail in saltwater; it retracted tentacles from cracks and grooves and corners and shudderingly retreated before me.
With the doll in my hands I forced it back to the shed, until it crept into a corner and faded and eventually disappeared. I closed and bolted the door. When I walked back to the house, the night lay down behind me like an old dog.
Stay where you are. The house with the green roof is mine.
© Ilse van Staden